Posts Tagged With: Ancient Egyptian

Giza Month Part One: Khufu and the Great Pyramid of Giza

Welcome to Giza Month! This month, I’m going to fill you in on the creation of one of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Pyramids at Giza, and their surrounding, but lesser known, treasures. Finally, we’ll end the month with a discussion of the ongoing and heated debate surrounding the construction of the pyramids.

map giza pyramid complex- courtesy of khan academy

map Giza pyramid complex – courtesy of khan academy

It’s evident that Giza Month should begin with the largest and most iconic pyramid in the history of Ancient Egypt: The Great Pyramid constructed during the reign of Pharaoh Khufu (known in some ancient documents by the Greek version of his name, Cheops). Built over an estimated 20-30 year period, Khufu’s pyramid stands around 480 feet tall, with a base length of more than 750 feet per side. Almost more impressive than the pyramid’s imposing dimensions is the fact that the difference in length among the four sides is a mere 4.4 cm, an incredible engineering accomplishment for an ancient society.

Entrance, Pyramid of Khufu (Photo: Olaf Tausch)

Entrance, Pyramid of Khufu (Photo: Olaf Tausch)

The Great Pyramid of Giza incorporates around 2.3 million stone blocks weighing an average of 2.5 to 15 tons each. The stones you see in the image above are the inner, locally quarried core stones. During the original construction, angled outer casing stone made of white Tura limestone was installed on top of these less ornamental blocks to give the pyramid a smooth surface while being bright and reflective. Finally, the pyramid would have possessed a capstone, known as a pyramidion, that may have been gilt, and would have certainly been visible for miles around. Both the pyramidion and casing stones were removed and repurposed long ago in order to construct other monuments.

To enter the pyramid, the visitor has to crawl up an extremely cramped ascending chamber that opens suddenly into the Grand Gallery. From this 26-foot tall corbelled passageway, the visitor can decide to descend to the Queens Chamber or the unfinished subterranean chamber below, or to ascend to the King’s chamber, which is constructed entirely from red granite brought from the southern quarries at Aswan.

Diagram of the interior of the Pyramid of Khufu

Diagram of the interior of the Pyramid of Khufu

Above the King’s Chamber are five stress-relieving chambers of granite blocks that create a roof that helps distribute the weight of the pyramid itself. The king’s sarcophagus was found sitting at the exact central axis of the pyramid in a burial chamber. The chamber was sealed with a collection of large granite blocks and the entrance of the main shaft filled with limestone to obscure the opening to the human eye.

The pyramid was not Khufu’s only successful construction project: The Great Pyramid was the centerpiece of an entire complex, which includes several smaller pyramids, a mortuary temple, a causeway, a valley temple, many small tombs for officials and some members of the royal family, and more than five large boat pits.

Reconstructed funerary boat of Khufu (Photo: Dr. Amy Calvert)

Reconstructed funerary boat of Khufu (Photo: Dr. Amy Calvert)

These boat pits, which have a history of accompanying pharaonic mortuary structures (discovered at the Dynasty 1 pharaonic cemetery at Abydos), were intended to store the boats the pharaoh would need to transport himself across the sky in the afterlife. Although five of these pits contained only boat-shaped models, two pits on the south side of the Great Pyramid contained completed disassembled boats and all the supplies necessary to build them.  Using only ancient instructions and materials (or materials created through use of ancient instructions), one of these boats was removed and reconstructed, now standing in a special museum on the south side of the pyramid. The reconstructed cedar boat is 142 feet in length and contains 1,224 individual pieces! Investigation of the burial site, seems to indicate that these boats were most likely used for the funerary procession of the pharaoh to his resting places, and were then dismantled and buried.

Khufu’s Great Pyramid and the accompanying treasures not only helped to insure the safe passage of the king into the afterlife, but have contributed to humankind’s continuing fascination with Ancient Egypt. People from all over the world continue to flock to Giza to see these monuments. Even in an age dominated by technology and somewhat jaded human sensibilities, the pyramids represent something grand and immovable, they exert a mysterious power, drawing our attention and stirring our imagination.

“Man fears time, but Time fears the pyramids.”

Photo by Astronaut Terry W. Virts

Photo by Astronaut Terry W. Virts

Additional resources:
Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids (Thames and Hudson, 2008).

David O’Connor, Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris (Thames and Hudson, 2011).

Amy Calvert , Old Kingdom: Pyramid of Khufu, Khan Academy

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Rabbit’s Feet, Four Leaf Clovers…Dung Beetles? The History of the Egyptian Scarab

Of all the ancient Egyptian “treasures” I have in my collection, the one that is most precious to me is a scarab necklace given to me by my parents. It has become my good luck charm, worn to almost every interview, class presentation, and stressful event I can remember; but is this how the ancient Egyptians would have used the scarab amulet? Am I completely off-base?

Scarabs are one of the most revered zoomorphic symbols in the ancient Egyptian religion, although it is highly unlikely that you would uncover a horde of scarabs in a tomb like our friends in The Mummy:

courtesy of universal studios

courtesy of universal studios

The scarab served as the ancient Egyptian version of the Christian Cross; a symbol of protection and the journey of rebirth.  It is often associated with the sun god, Re, but this association arose from the Egyptians’ misunderstanding of the scarab’s life cycle. As described by the Met Museum,

An adult beetle lays its eggs inside a ball of dung, which is then buried underground. When the young beetles hatch, the only portion of this process easily visible to an observer is the beetle emerging fully developed from a dung ball, a seemingly magical event. Thus, the Egyptian word for scarab translates as “to come into being.”  The scarab forms food balls out of fresh dung using its back legs to push the oversized spheres along the ground toward its burrow. The Egyptians equated this process with the sun’s daily cycle across the sky, believing that a giant scarab moved the sun from the eastern horizon to the west each day, making the amulet a potent symbol of rebirth.*

*unmentioned in the article, the Egyptian word for scarab is hprr, which inspires the name of the god Khepri, the god of creation. The ‘Khepri name’ is also one of the titles of the pharaoh (but more on that later!).

This association with rebirth is illustrated through the collection of scarab iconography found during various excavations.  In one iteration, scarabs are a cheap and common charm, which ancient Egyptians could easily afford and would often wear each day, possibly strung on a cord as a necklace. This form of the scarab provided protective powers that warded off evil and brought blessings to the wearer. A second iteration of the scarab is the seal; these seals bore the name of the pharaoh, royal officials, or religious figures and functioned much like a Christian medal or scapular of a saint or holy prayer or image, providing protection and guidance through this world and potentially the next. The most important iteration of the scarab in the funerary tradition, where scarabs were wrapped between the layers of the mummy cloth and specifically set over the heart to help provide safe journey and offer guidance as the soul of the deceased traveled into the next life.

Knowing the ancient Egyptians’ obsession with death and the afterlife, it is clear that the scarab held immense symbolic power for all Egyptians, and was a necessary entity to their success in both this life and the next.  Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’ve got to find my necklace before I start my Masters Thesis…

necklace

Works Cited:

http://wcma.williams.edu/blog/amulets/

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/10.130.910_27.3.206

http://museum.unl.edu/research/entomology/Egyptian_Sacred_Scarab/egs-text.htm

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/e/egyptian_scarabs.aspx

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The Dawning of the Rest of their Lives- Ancient Egyptian Holidays

As we finish out the ‘holiday slump month’ more affectionately known as January, it is critical to our sanity to look forward to the coming warmth of spring and summer weekends and holidays filled with outdoor activities. If the chill in your toes keeps your imagination from stretching that far, try to remember that virtually every day of the calendar year is a holiday of some sorts; today {January 28th} happens to be National Blueberry Pancake Day, National ‘Fun At Work’ Day, and National Kazoo Day! You might be surprised to learn that the ancient Egyptians shared this love of holidays and had special celebrations for practically every occasion. But their celebrations held a higher purpose than, say, National Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19). The ancient Egyptians celebrated with a very clear goal: to maintain and improve their relations with the gods in order to maintain peace and supply a bountiful harvest. Because of their reliance on farming, many of the Ancient Egyptian holidays tied in with the changing of the seasons (much like our equinoxes) that marked the harvest, the flooding of the Nile, etc. However, additional festivals were held throughout the year to more specifically worship the gods that ruled over every aspect of ancient Egyptian life.

One of the biggest festivals of the year was Wepet Renpet, or “Opening of the Year.” This Ancient Egyptian New Year’s festival was unique in that it did not fall on a particular date, but instead usually corresponded with the annual inundation of the Nile that ensured farmlands remained fertile for the coming year.  Works authored by the Roman writer Censorinus describe how the festival was held when the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, first became visible after a 70-day absence. This phenomenon, which modern day scientists would refer to as heliacal rising, stood as a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation, and was celebrated with large feasts and specific religious rites to honor the Nile and the Gods who controlled it.

Ghetty Image

Ghetty Image

Festivals were also a means of celebrating the Earthly god that the ancient Egyptians saw in the person of their Pharaoh. In the 30th year of each pharaoh’s reign (and reoccurring every three years after this point), the pharaoh held the Heb-Sed Festival as symbol of the renewal of his power and an affirmation that he maintained the sound mind and body necessary to rule over his land. *It is important to note that if a pharaoh experienced failing health or had other extenuating circumstances, he may shorten this period between festivals in order to keep the faith of the ancient Egyptian people.* The ritual of the festival varied throughout the years, but most often seemed to consist of a symbolic offering to the gods, a ceremonial crowning as king of upper and lower Egypt, and a race around the Heb-Sed court, making laps as the king of Lower Egypt and then separately as the king of Upper Egypt. Only after this celebration was complete would the pharaoh successfully reinstate his power and his claim to rule over all of Egypt.

Even the most frivolous of celebrations, the Festival of Drunkenness, had a strong religious tie. As strange as it may seem, the point of this festival was to get so drunk that those participating would fall asleep in the temple forecourt. After passing out, the ritual would continue with the drinkers being awakened by the sound of drums and music so they could commune and worship with the goddess Hathor. Then there was dancing, more drinking, and excessive celebration, all in hopes of receiving a message from the goddess. Researchers have questioned whether or not the text describing the festival is intending the phrase “traveling through the marshes” to provide a sexual element to the festival but Hathor’s status as the goddess of love seems to support this claim. Either way, it is clear that the excessive frivolity was utilized as a way to connect the common Egyptian to the goddess, if only for a day.

courtesy of thekeep.org

courtesy of thekeep.org

Our investigation into ancient Egyptians’ holidays and festivals has emphasized something that we, of course, already know; the Egyptians held their religion extremely close, and tied their relationships with the gods to the prosperity and peace of their land. By celebrating the gods and changing of the seasons, ancient Egyptians showed their love and appreciation for these greater powers while ensuring that they themselves (whether pharaoh or farmer) would be renewed and maintain power over their land. Modern religions still possess this idea to the extent, worshipping their god(s) and celebrating feast days in order to honor the spirit of their religion, and while our main calendar may never include festivals that match those of the ancient Egyptians, I’m going to celebrate January 28 by kicking back and eating blueberry pancakes while playing the kazoo.

~M

Works Cited:

http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/egypt_alcohol.html#.VMHAM0fF8nd

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/f/festivals_of_ancient_egypt.aspx

http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/5-ancient-new-years-celebrations

http://arabworldbooks.com/egyptomania/sameh_arab_sed_heb.htm

http://www.themuseum.ca/blog/unwrapping-secrets-ancient-egypt-ancient-festivals-and-holidays

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Spring Semester (Scribal) Slump

As we begin our first full week of the Spring Semester, I can’t help but revel in my usual Winter “Back to School Slump.” The holiday season has ended, it is freezing cold, and spring seems nowhere in sight. I wonder…is this how it has always been? Did King Tut dread going back to school after a festival? Did Hatshepsut ever choose an Ancient Egyptian equivalent of a Netflix Movie Marathon in bed instead of attending class?

Little is truly known about the Ancient Egyptian education system. But the main difference we can identify when comparing their system to our own is that being an educated Ancient Egyptian was extremely rare. Only a small minority of the elite children, sons of scribes and noblemen, received a formal education that included reading, writing, and arithmetic. As a prince, one was given the highest form of education, including the “arts of war”—horse riding, the use of weapons, and guiding a chariot.

Young men in Ancient Egyptian society did not typically choose their own career paths, but instead followed the family trade or profession. Unless they were a child of the King himself, most children were personally tutored by their parents, through apprenticeships.

(courtesy of library.thinkquest.org)

Scribal schools were an exception. Young men wishing to follow in their father’s footsteps and become scribes entered a very intensive program of training in a formal school setting. As we know, the Egyptian writing system is extremely intricate and unique. Many student scribes were occasionally inattentive or just plain unmotivated, and expressed a desire to quit school altogether (sound familiar?). As one may expect, teachers were frustrated with their students, claiming:

“They tell me that thou forsakes writing, and departest and dost flee; that thou forsakes writing and usest thy legs like horses of the riding-school. Thy heart is fluttered; thou art like an axj-bird. Thy ear is deaf; thou art like an antelope in fleeing.“ (Warnings to the Idle Scribe)

Sometimes, frustration with students got a little out of hand:

“But though I beat you with every kind of stick, you do not listen. If I knew another way of doing it, I would do it for you that you might listen.” (Instruction in Letter Writing)

When they weren’t suffering the occasional beating, students in scribal training learned the ins and outs of Egyptian hieroglyphics, practicing their writing on pottery shards or stone fragments. Scribal students would copy memorized texts over and over again until their grammar and execution were perfected. Only then could they graduate and take over their father’s position.

But what about the ladies? Unfortunately, the Ancient Egyptian education system had rules similar to a boy’s tree house: NO. GIRLS. ALLOWED. There is no concrete evidence that women were taught to read and write, or were involved in the education system at all. Women from semi-elite families were, at the most, given the opportunity to become temple musicians, or dancers. However, it is possible that royal status gave women more educational opportunities. They may have sat alongside their siblings and been exposed to literature, mathematics, writing, and grammar. The historical record does hold a very few examples of women who had obviously been educated. For instance, from the Third Intermediate Period on, the highest office within the cult of Amun-Re was held by a woman. She received the title of “God’s Wife”. (British Museum) We also know that Cleopatra was one of the most educated rulers of her time, knowing multiple languages including Ancient Egyptian (uncommon for Pharaohs of her time), math, poetry, and much more. Some women were responsible for running estates or manors, conducting certain levels of business such as owning or renting land, and could also take part in legal cases such as marriage and divorces. However, in general, women were relegated to domestic responsibilities such as weaving, baking, gardening, or farming.

So, as we endure the spirit-numbing winter weather that continues plaguing us this spring semester, let’s remember three things. One: Everyone (girl power!) should be grateful to have the opportunity of receiving an education. Two: Be thankful you have the option to study WHATEVER you want. And Three: Be thankful beating sticks are not allowed.

Sources:
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/w/women_in_ancient_egypt.aspx
http://www.historyembalmed.org/ancient-egyptians/ancient-egyptian-education.htm
http://www.rom.on.ca/en/education/online-activities/ancient-egypt/life-in-ancient-egypt/education

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